The King of Fiddlers
He looked familiar. I was eating pork and ginger with white rice at Phnom Penh’s Lucky Bright Restaurant and realized that the violin player looked familiar. Then it hit me: Huot Thea is in King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s band.
“It has been good for my career,” the 41-year-old violinist said after one of his regular performances at Lucky Bright.
People, he says, often recognize him from his performances with the King Father.
Cambodia’s multi-talented retired King is known not only as a prolific filmmaker but also as an energetic singer and talented songwriter.
Norodom Sihanouk’s legendary palace soirees have always included him singing live before diplomats and dignitaries-and featuring such Western classics as “Feelings” and “Lambada,” and much-loved songs by Cambodia’s late Sin Sisamuth.
Sin Sisamuth’s “Sekong,” “Why Do You Cry When I Sing?” and “Last Year,” are still wildly popular among young and old Cambodians and are included in the retired King’s repertoire.
Norodom Sihanouk’s band often includes his uncle Prince Norodom Sirivuddh on guitar and Minister of Culture Prince Sisowath Panara Sirivuddh on saxophone. When a violin is required, as it often is, Huot Thea is called for.
“My father played for the King and I have known him since I was a boy. I work at the Ministry of Culture also so when they need me, they contact me there,” Huot Thea says, adding that he is also a dab hand at the maracas.
“We played together for a meeting of provincial governors in September, before the King Father left for Beijing,” Huot Thea says.
Norodom Sihanouk has been singing publicly at the palace in Phnom Penh on occasion since the early 1990s following the country’s turn to democracy and his return from exile in China. Huot Chea says he has performed with the retired king countless times since then.
“With the King Father I learned a lot of new songs especially in French and Spanish that I never would have had a chance to learn,” he says.
Sometimes the band’s practice sessions can go on for a very long time, Huot Thea says, because Norodom Sihanouk is a perfectionist and has the energy of a much younger man.
“I have never seen a person that age that can sing that much and remember that much,” Huot Thea said. “When we played for diplomats, it went on until four in the morning. I went to the toilet two or three times, but the King Father never stopped to take a break.”
US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, who has attended some of the retired King’s performances, said of the singing: “I wish I had had as much stamina at 24 as the King Father still has at 84.”
Huot Thea said of all the songs the King sings, his personal favorite is “Monique,” which is about the King Father’s love for the Queen.
Most nights, however, Huot Thea can be found leading his Lucky Bright Band at Lucky Bright restaurant on Norodom Boulevard, where he plays for a clientele of largely well-to-do Khmers and government officials.
But Huot Thea has also entertained some very different customers.
A master of the traditional Khmer two-stringed instrument called the tro, Huot Thea as a teenager was conscripted to play for Khmer Rouge soldiers during the 1975-1979 Democratic Kampuchea regime.
“During the Khmer Rouge regime, I also played…. I was still young so I never thought about politics. I would play when they camped at the pagoda,” he said.
Playing now in the retired King’s band has been much better, he adds.
“That is life, you have to adjust to the new regime.”